Artist Blake Kathryn’s 3D dreamscapes have the power to transport viewers to another world — one of rich color palettes, glossy androids, and a neon-hued alternate reality. Her one-of-a-kind look has attracted clients like Adidas, Fendi, The New York Times, and Adobe. Most recently, she animated the visualizer for Lil Nas X’s “Panini,” which currently sits at 47 million views on YouTube. Published on the evening before the release of his debut EP, her looping animations of slick cyborgs accompanied his second single after the success of “Old Town Road,” helping propel the notion that he’s more than a one-hit wonder.
Kathryn studied at the University of Florida with the intentions of going into advertising, but she found herself attracted to studying graphic design. After graduating, a move to New York City jump-started her career, furthering her interests in the music industry and fine arts. After experiencing a polar vortex and dreaming of the sun, Kathryn made her way to Los Angeles, where she now takes inspiration from tech-free walks that eventually show up in the form of iridescent palm trees in her art.
I spoke with Kathryn about her experience working with Lil Nas X, how she uses her subconscious as a resource, and advice for getting into 3D artwork.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
When did you first get into 3D and how did you go about learning?
March 2015, I remember this so specifically as it was when the 100 Day Project was kicking off on Instagram. I promised myself to shake out of my vector-minimalist style leading up to this challenge. I was browsing old work a couple weeks ago and it’s wild to see how rough those early days are. That being said, I went through a pretty common self-taught path: tutorial overload on Greyscalegorilla, YouTube, Eyedesyn, you name it. I fell so in love with the possibilities of breaking into a 3D canvas I never looked back and am happy to say it completely reshaped my career trajectory.
You focus a lot on creating these dreamscapes and worlds. What do you find the most satisfying about creating these?
If you’re always living in your own head, sometimes it’s nice to actualize said escapes. I’ve always been a head-in-the-clouds daydreamer and am blessed with vivid dreams on the regular. That subconscious resource is nearly endless and so often the takeaways I latch on to are my surroundings. Nothing is ever quite right or grounded in reality. Trying to actualize those moments and bring them into a tangible medium is both very personal and therapeutic. Emotionally, the creative process feels similar to a comforting nostalgic memory, but it never really happened or went away.
Where do you pull inspiration?
The best inspiration always comes when I’m not trying, which is a frustrating battle I hope to hack someday. My go-to methods are tech-free walks, browsing through books, sketching while decompressing at night, and going through any and all cinematography-heavy movies — classic or new.
I absolutely love the work you did for Lil Nas X. What was it like working on that project? How did it come about?
Thank you! It was a wildly fast-paced ride. I think from the kickoff call to the final send-off was about three, maybe four days? In our initial chat, Montero [Lil Nas X] had a general overview of what he wanted the direction to be, and from there, had a generous level of creative trust in whatever vision I felt best conveyed that. It’s such a blessing when you’re able to collaborate with people that have that mindset. With the tighter deadline, I selfishly wish I had just a little more time to expand on a moment or two, but his fan base seemed really excited about what we came up with so my heart is very full. Also it only happened because I reached out on a Twitter thread! So hey, sometimes sharing your work cold-call style works.
What does your creative process look like today? From start to finish.
Analog starts with illegible notes, chicken scratches, lists of lighting / material considerations. Then I move onto consolidating anything and everything that’s either written or visual into a single space — Miro boards have been useful lately for collecting that. From there I organize the chaos a bit, write out a clear statement / composition and dive in digitally. Once a piece feels render-ready, I move onto post and generally enjoy adding in painted light, surreal finesses, etc. as the cherry on top. My favorite moment in the creative process is between finishing a piece and sharing it — it’s an intimate self-fulfilling state.
How long does a piece usually take to create? Have you streamlined this process in anyway?
It varies! I used to be a speedy little demon, but my work was also a lot simpler — a single focal object and negative space. With enjoying a more complex approach to my work now, the time naturally has gone up. Sometimes an idea hits, I run with it, and in less than a day it’s just right. Then there’s other days, and more common as of late, where I’ll have four-plus works in progress that I switch between over the course of weeks until one is right. If I had to give an estimated average of actively working on a personal piece, start to finish, most are done in eight to 14 hours.
How do you rest and recharge yourself when you’re out of ideas?
Speaking my current language. I’ve allowed client work to drain me more than is probably healthy this year, which leaves me quite dry for personal studies. It’s honestly largely accepting this first, understanding you can’t force something to spark if there’s nothing there. Similar to my preferred inspiration-seeking routes, I find recharging most successful when unplugged. Allowing the mind to wander and feel free, in an almost meditative state, that really rejuvenates the concept muscles most effectively for me at this time.
What software do you use to create your artwork?
Cinema 4D is my bread and butter. Supported by After Effects, Photoshop, Daz3d, Redshift, and very occasionally Zbrush and Substance Painter. There’s so many applications out there it can feel like a complex dance navigating between them for some projects.
What hardware do you use on a daily basis? What PC build are you running?
It’s a beefy custom spaceship. I have a full-size case housing four 1080 TIs, an i7 processor, 128GB RAM, etc. I operate on Windows, being a PC, and I’m not enough of a UI snob to bootcamp Apple. I’ve been solely GPU rendering for a while, so it works out quite nicely for me, though I have to be cautious of temperatures during demanding projects. This summer has been a toasty one.
What are some of your favorite creative tools and resources?
Outside of my usuals I mentioned, I love Forester, it’s amazing for working with foliage and developing a quick digital green thumb. I used to use Octane for texturing and rendering, and have largely moved onto Redshift now, which is also wonderful once you get the hang of it (not to mention stable). As for creative resources, I’m really enjoying weekly to bi-weekly library trips to simply wander about and find something of substance to inspire my personal work.
Your style is always so consistent between your personal and client work. How does your approach to client work differ from your personal?
That means a lot, thank you. Client work is usually on a faster track earlier in the process, the brief expedites figuring out the purpose, and from there it falls into line with my usual flow: writing out thoughts, sketches, and collecting assorted inspiration for how elements can work together. It’s pretty analog all around until the first formal creative review, regardless of the project. With personal work, that is largely true as well: I’ll bookmark pages, scratch out thoughts, and pull those physical and digital references into a consolidated space when I feel it’s time to start making some magic happen.
Tell me more about H+ Creative. What’s it like working with a creative agency and having representation?
Representation is a very personal choice, but for me it has been such a relief and definitely secured some of my larger projects through the years. Not dealing with the logistics phase, having the majority of business side handled, and in general a person that mediates between myself and the client is *chef’s kiss*. That being said, it’s an intimate, professional relationship that naturally you want to last long term, so I waited until I found someone I truly related with for present and future goals before making the commitment.
Where do you envision yourself and your work evolving in the next few years?
I consider myself a 3D designer, I want for that to evolve into an artist as I continue through this chapter of my work. By that, I mean being hired more purely for myself (not just skills), taking on projects that have a personal meaning, and also evolving outside of my current medium. When work simmers down I’m looking forward to beginning to learn a game engine for starters. The future seems immersive and I’d love to contribute to that vision.
What’s a dream project of yours?
Concept art for a science fiction movie, preferably environmental or architectural, and getting my hands into more interactive work such as game concept art or actual design.
What would you recommend for people who want to learn how to work in 3D, but don’t know where to start?
The most important thing with going into a technical area of design or art is to first find your “generalist” program that works best for you. I recommend Cinema 4D, though I have a handful of colleagues who vouch for Blender, too. Once settled, spend the less-than-fun task of learning the interface and then it’s time to get dirty with some polygons! Everything I’ve learned has resulted from searching for educational resources online such as Greyscalegorilla, Eyedesyn, YouTube, and the forever faithful method of trial and error.